Those collecting the set of Scandinavian countries from which mordant and elegantly grisly crime thrillers have originated in recent times can now tick off Norway. Following in the wake of Sweden’s Wallender and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Denmark’s The Killing, Headhunters, an adaptation of the novel by Jo Nesbø, once again features gruesome murders, betrayals, dark secrets and suspenseful games of cat-and-mouse, but it has a distinctive tone of its own that makes it well worth checking out: more dynamic, funnier and with an intricate twisty plot that delights as elements click into place unexpectedly.
Typical of the unpredictable nature of the film is the way that the first half hour or so sets up a world of wealthy businessmen and high-powered executive dealing that gives no hint of the physical peril and extraordinary ordeals that lead character Roger Brown (a curiously British sounding name for a Norwegian) will later go through. He’s a recruitment agent – the headhunter of the title – who bankrolls his unsustainably opulent lifestyle via a little art theft on the side, and one’s initial impression is that this going to be a classy caper movie, what with the cat-burglar outfits and the dodging round hi-tech security systems. Things become significantly less civilised however when Roger tries to reel in a ruthless former mercenary who has access both to serious weaponry and a terrifyingly ingenious GPS tracking system, from which there appears to be no escape. Roger’s an intelligent and resourceful man, but he’s not really cut out for this kind of fieldwork and a series of bloody and messy episodes punctuate his desperate attempts to get off the map. These sequences are in turn gripping, stomach-turning, very funny and downright shocking, reminiscent both of Tarantino in the way that bad situations always seem to suddenly get much worse, and Hitchcock, for the skill with which director Morten Tyldum gets one to identify with the hunted man and guides one through some pretty fiddly plot-points. Aksel Hennie excels in the unusually demanding lead role: despite some voiceover at the start and end of the film he’s often having to communicate his character’s inner feelings through facial expression and physical acting and believe me, you really do feel his pain at times.
Headhunters is at times wince-making and times wildly enjoyable but it’s never boring and it manages to tie everything up by the end much more satisfyingly than your average noir, and with no cheesy wisecracking either. I laughed, I gasped and I’m staying clear of outhouses in the woods and winding cliff-edge roads from now on.
The true story of a group of people forced to go into hiding in sewers when the Nazis liquidate the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lvov is the basis of the tough but ultimately compassionate new film In Darkness directed by Agnieszka Holland, whose previous credits include not only the similarly themed Europa Europa but quite a few episodes of acclaimed TV series such as The Wire, Treme and The Killing. In general terms the new film is more or less a hybrid of Schindler’s List (cynical mercenary helps a group of Jews and rediscovers his humanity) and The Pianist (opportunities for survival in an increasingly bombed out city get more and more precarious) and a lot of its sewer sequences seem highly reminiscent of Andrzej Wajda’s brilliant and nightmarish Kanal, in which a group of resistance fighters find themselves cut off and lost in the tunnels under Warsaw, but this is far from a knock-off and has a particular power of its own deriving from the unflinching way it depicts the frailties of even the most courageous and selfless of people when they come under inhuman pressures.
The central character is Leopold Socha, a hardbitten drainage worker and black marketeer who spies a chance to make some extra bucks when a band of refugees turn up in his section of sewer. He’s no saint and initially treats his desperate clients with casual disdain, but he does at least honour his side of the bargain and his attitude doesn’t look so extreme once we’re given a taste of the atrocities that are being routinely doled out above surface. Eventually various unpalatable situations force him to choose which side he’s on, but he’s not the only character who’s loyalties are being tested – one of the most notable aspects of the film is its success in bringing out the individual and often subtle facets of the personalities of the trapped group, and the conflicts and alliances that result are not necessarily those you anticipate.
In Darkness is, as you’d expect, pretty murky visually for much of its running time, but the audience is given careful signposts throughout to ensure that we can differentiate, and sometimes even navigate, different parts of the tunnel complex. The film is treated to look grainy, with the bright colours that do occur full and saturated. It’s not really documentary-style, but it’s certainly effective. The performances are naturalistic and convincing, and really sell the enormity of the situation – frequently we’re presented with normally reasonable people yelling at each other and there are no artificial Hollywood-style inspirational orations here. A lot of bad things happen, and a lot of worthy people are denied a happy ending but the grimness never quite gets overwhelming, if only because we know, even if the characters don’t, that salvation via Russian tanks is on its way. Socha managed to keep his Jews hidden from the Nazis for an extraordinary 14 months and was posthumously honoured by Israel. This is a pretty bleak film to watch for much of its two and a half hours but it surely documents an amazing act of humanity.
Posted in Film, Review
Tagged Agnieszka Holland, Andrzej Wajda, Europa Europa, In Darkness, Kanal, Leopold Socha, review, Schindler's List, The Killing, The Pianist, The Wire, Treme
A few weeks ago I saw a trailer for The Debt, a remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov about three young intelligence agents getting into trouble on a mission to abduct a former Nazi doctor in 1960s East Berlin, and it didn’t seem particularly appetising: rapidly cut together action scenes with mucho emoting juxtaposed with somewhat maudlin snippets of the same three characters mooching about regretfully thirty-odd years later, when they’re now being played by different actors, and even the fact that one of the older actors is the redoubtable Helen Mirren didn’t inspire me much.
Well, so much for trailers. The Debt is actually a pretty damn good action-drama, in a sort of looks-political-but-ends-up-personal way, which holds your attention all the way through and has at least two enjoyably clammy and nail-bitey setpieces that are as thoroughly thrilling as the most celebrated of heist sequences (think Rififi, The First Great Train Robbery, Kubrick’s The Killing and so on). Like the recent Sarah’s Key, the film takes place in two time-frames, and also like that film the scenes set in the past are in general more effective than those set in the present, though the modern framing story is much better integrated into the drama here. The young agents are convincingly variously portrayed as inexperienced, hopelessly idealistic, courageous, loyal, frightened and ultimately cynical, and the contrast between their surface cool and their inner turmoil powers the drama of their brave and risky attempt to kidnap a slippery war criminal. When their plot starts to unravel they find themselves isolated and are forced to make decisions that will compromise their moral integrity, and the way these three very different characters deal with (or find themselves unable to deal with) these choices informs the modern day sequences that are intercut with the 1960s ones.
Dialogue-wise The Debt is fairly functional and expository, and there were a couple of times I winced a bit at the lines Mirren and her reliably watchable co-stars Tom Wilkinson and Ciarán Hinds were given (although this flat dialogue style seemed to work fine for the 1960s sections, where the three agents are played by Jessica Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington), but the final sequence of the film when Mirren’s character faces up to her past do redeem this failing, being as it is light on words and strong on atmosphere and tension. The best performance in the film is by Jesper Christensen as the so-called Surgeon of Birkenau, who manages to convey a malign and probing intelligence even as he’s speaking some pretty hackneyed lines written in the “unrepentant villain” mode. Despite these criticisms, the narrative line of the film is clear and goes in some interesting directions it’s hard to second-guess, and director John Madden’s grip on the material can’t be faulted. Unexpectedly involving.
Posted in Film, Review
Tagged Ciarán Hinds, Ha-Hov, Helen Mirren, Jesper Christensen, Jessica Chastain, John Madden, Marton Csokas, Rififi, Sam Worthington, Sarah's Key, The Debt, The First Great Train Robbery, The Killing, Tom Wilkinson